My Kind of Music
Warwick Records WW 5011
There’s no way of avoiding it really, so you know what, I won’t even try. Bernard Manning was a big fat objectionable racist. So phew, there, that’s that done and out of the way. Bernard Manning was also, as Jonathan Margolis points out in his 1996 biography, ‘offensive, distasteful, insulting, obscene, coarse and vulgar’. And that in a nutshell was the key to his success.
Bernard was an old fashioned portly northern club comic, already anachronistic and in his early 40s when the 1971 ITV series The Comedians catapulted him to national success and widespread public acclaim. He seized the opportunities that the show presented and by 1974 was already swanking around Manchester in a Rolls-Royce complete with personalised number plates (BJM 1 naturally).
And yet that was really the end of Bernard’s comedy career on television. He went on to host The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, an on-screen recreation of a northern club complete with scampi and beer and variety acts, a series which allowed Bernard to indulge his passion for singing easy listening classics in the company of Matt Munro.
Too rude and obnoxious ever to carve out a mainstream TV career, Bernard capitalised on his reputation and his bad-boy image, allowing his lack of exposure to become his selling point. To experience the full onslaught of Bernard Manning would have meant travelling to see him or purchasing his merchandise. Bernard became a very rich man from his exploits on the live scene, packing out theatres and clubs all over the UK (and unbelievably Las Vegas) while all the time running his own ‘World Famous’ Embassy Club in Manchester with his son. He also made a good living from the usual video and album spin offs. Bernard apparently sold 800,000 records in his career and as he himself said, “nobody’s getting their money back.”
TV didn’t really know what to do with Bernard Manning. His popularity with his core audience never really abated and his steadfast refusal to temper his act or tackle less risqué material meant that Bernard Manning remained almost unbroadcastable until the end of his life. He flitted in and out of the TV schedules in small uncomfortable shows that attempted to accommodate his bigotry and spite. For about the last ten years of his life he seemed to appear in endless documentaries which allowed him to sit an armchair in his voluminous underpants. Nice work if you can get it I suppose, but Bernard Manning’s glorious heyday remained the 1970s, a less enlightened time politically perhaps but a great time to be a foul-mouthed northern club comic.
He wasn’t always an anarchic opinionated offensive comedian though. When Bernard Manning finished his National Service in 1950 at the age of 21, he was determined to become a singer. While his ambitions played out he supplemented his income by joining his father in the family greengrocery business. A keen Sinatra fan, Bernard’s first paid gig was at the annual St Clare’s Catholic School dance, for which he was paid a whole £2. Within a year he was appearing at the Oldham Empire billed as ‘Britain’s Newest Singing Thrill’ and receiving a much more wholesome £14 a gig. Inevitably London soon came calling and Bernard relocated to the capital to sing with the Oscar Rabin Band, one of the top musical acts of the time.
Bernard’s first big chance at national stardom was finished before it began though. Due to broadcast on the Light Programme in 1952, the show was cancelled due to the death of George VI. London didn’t agree with the delicate tripe-eating constitution of the resolutely northern singer and travelling back to Manchester each week to court his young fiancée Vera soon took its toll. By the end of 1952 a homesick Bernard returned to Manchester for good, his big break was over and his rare chance to become a nationally acclaimed singer was now gone. He returned to the northern clubs scene, compering in seedy wrestling clubs when he could have been headlining at the Palladium. However, the energetic cut and thrust of compering in such an environment instead was the making of the myth that is Bernard Manning. It allowed him to develop his gritty patter and his hard-edged confrontational comic skills and ultimately become a full-time comedian. The rest as they say is history. History and infamy. And vulgarity.
His 1975 Warwick Records debut My Kind of Music sees Bernard return to the sort of easy-crooning ballads and standards that influenced his early forays into singing. His vocals are strong and boom out pleasingly behind the strings and carefully arranged harmonies of the Mike Sammes singers. Some songs work and some don’t. When no great demands are made of Bernard then he is a perfectly adequate club singer that certainly wouldn’t curdle your lukewarm pint of Lees bitter or cause the chicken in a basket to shrivel. The problem is that when Bernard has to switch down a notch, the subtlety just simply isn’t there. Trying to imagine Bernard Manning being intimate, caring, lovelorn and sincere is hard. And he can’t really pull it off, the voice is grainy and menacing rather than loving. In fact let’s imagine no more. Here to play us out is Lord Bernard Manning with the 1913 McCarthy and Monaco number You Made Me Love You. Given that the famously blacked-up Al Jolson first popularised the song, it’s perhaps fitting that Bernard tackled it…